The New England Patriots will be marching right back into the playoffs after a one-year hiatus in 2020, and they still have a chance to accomplish yet another familiar feat: win the AFC East. In order to do so, they'll have to take down the Miami Dolphins, whose own playoff hopes were dashed last week but who have grown accustomed to playing "spoiler" during the Patriots' trips down south in the later stages of the regular season.
Miami's dismal 34-3 loss at Tennessee last week brought to an end not only the team's chances at a trip to the postseason but also a historic streak that saw the Dolphins (8-8) bounce back from a seven-game losing streak with seven straight wins. No NFL team had ever followed seven straight losses with seven straight wins before Miami did so this season, but not even the remarkable turnaround was enough to save the Dolphins after the miserable start.
The Patriots (10-6) didn't open up 2021 all too well either, losing three of their first four games and four of their first six. But a seven-game winning streak of their own helped set the table for another trip to the postseason, and a dominant 50-10 home win over Jacksonville has New England in a familiar spot — tied atop the AFC East. The Patriots claimed the division title every year from 2009-19, with Buffalo interrupting its run last season. Now both teams are tied with one game left, but the Bills hold the tiebreaker thanks to a better divisional record and can make it back-to-back titles with a win at home over the Jets.
As for this matchup with Miami, New England has held the upper hand over its division rival down south, winning 20 of 30 regular-season meetings between 2006 and 2020. Of the games played in Miami during that 15-year stretch, though, the edge tilts ever so slightly in the Dolphins' favor (8-7), and Brian Flores' team is going for the rare season sweep of the Patriots after edging them 17-16 in Foxborough way back in Week 1. The last time Miami swept New England was the 2000 season. Dave Wannstedt was the Dolphins' head coach then while Bill Belichick was in his first season with the Patriots.
New England (10-6) at Miami (8-8)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 9, at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Miami's defense rebound against an explosive New England offense?
Heading into the Week 14 bye, New England had won seven in a row and had scored at least 24 points in all but two games since the start of October … with one of the two exceptions a 14-10 Week 13 win on a Monday night in windy, snowy conditions. In other words, the Patriots' offense had been clicking on all cylinders before the bye but followed the break with just 38 total points across losses to Indianapolis and Buffalo.
Last week, though, the Patriots welcomed in the new year with their second 50-point output of the season in the romp over the Jaguars. Four first-half touchdowns — including two rushing scores by Damien Harris — paved the way for a 28-3 lead before Rhamondre Stevenson notched two of his own and Kristian Wilkerson brought in his second touchdown pass of the game from Mac Jones.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, allowed 24 points just once during their seven-game winning streak after six of their seven previous losses came to teams eclipsing that mark. But their 34-3 loss at Tennessee last week brought many of the defense's struggles to light once again, as quarterback Ryan Tannehill — in his first game against his former team — threw for two touchdowns while D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard each found the end zone on the ground. If Miami is unable to bounce back from its struggles in Nashville, look for New England to have its way offensively on Sunday.
2. Which Dolphins make their impact felt entering the offseason?
With sights no longer set on the playoffs and the focus instead shifting to the shuffle that is the offseason, there will be plenty of moving parts throughout the Dolphins' roster. Key playmakers in the passing game like tight ends Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe — second and fourth on the team, respectively, in receiving — are both pending free agents, as is backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, author of the Dolphins' Week 9 win over Houston that kicked off the seven-game winning streak.
On the defensive side of the ball, defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah could be playing his way to a new contract after joining Miami on a two-year deal in 2020. Ogbah leads the team with nine sacks and is tied for second on the team with 10 passes defended, the only lineman on the team with more than three. Ogbah was limited in practice earlier in the week with a quad injury but practiced fully on Thursday, so all signs point to him being able to suit up in the season finale.
The contributions of this group and many more throughout the season will lead to a host of critical decisions in the offseason, as Miami looks for its first postseason berth since the 2016 season and first playoff win since 2000.
3. Can the Patriots' defense keep momentum riding high entering the postseason?
Just like the offense rebounded against Jacksonville, New England's defense regained its footing by allowing just 10 points to the Jaguars. In their nine previous wins, the Patriots held seven of the nine teams to 13 or fewer points, while the six teams that managed wins over New England more than doubled that mark with an average of 26.5 points in those games.
That was a strong bounce-back performance after the Colts and Bills gouged the Patriots with 27 and 33 points, respectively, in Weeks 15 and 16. That loss at Indianapolis was New England's first on the road this season, after winning the first six while allowing just 68 points (11.3 ppg) in those games.
Heading to Miami for the final week of the regular season, a defensive showing that resembles the six road wins more closely than the Week 15 loss at Indianapolis would be a strong positive boost entering the postseason.
The Patriots' 40-point win last Sunday was just the kind of turnaround they needed after the two losses brought an end to their seven-game winning streak. Thanks to that win, New England still has a chance to win the division but also needs Buffalo to lose at home vs. the Jets. And while Miami has quite a few players trying to earn themselves a new contract in 2022, the Patriots still have plenty to play for and will want to keep that positive energy intact entering the playoffs.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Dolphins 17
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.